Folk is, without a doubt, the music genre that I am least acquainted with. So why not ease myself in gently with what has not only been hailed as the best and most influential folk album of all time but also as one of the most important records in the world? By listeners of BBC Radio 2 and readers of Mojo that is, and in this matter I’m inclined to agree with them. Liege & Lief is a small but mighty collection, eight tracks that are a mix of traditional songs arranged by the band as well as original compositions, with a range of tempos and styles. Ballads sit alongside jigs without jarring. However, the story surrounding the album is worthy of a mournful melody itself.
What struck me about listening to the original album was its clarity. Now, this is partly due to technical reasons, as I was listening to the remastered version, but every instrument is played with a purity that is astounding. These people know what they’re doing but there’s nothing showy about their performances. The fluidity and sheer synchronicity of the sounds are soothing and stirring all at once. There’s something quite moving about hearing the traditional tracks in particular, knowing that they are being rendered as vividly as the very first time they were played, hundreds of years ago. The immediacy of that past evoked in the present, entwined with an awareness of the handing down of the oral tradition. Hearing those voices.
Well, that voice. Sandy Denny has a voice that is immediately enchanting. Listening to her sing brings on a synaesthetic twinge because it’s a sound that shines, a bright resonance, even when singing about being shot for being a deserter. There’s a mix of sombreness and life-affirming energy throughout, which is unsurprising given the circumstances of the album’s conception. A terrible motorway accident killed three members of the band and injured the rest. Recuperating not far from Winchester – a place Fiona and I happen to know very well – this was their effort immediately after the tragedy. In the years after Liege & Lief, Sandy Denny’s substance abuse worsened. A few months after having her only child, she suffered a head injury and died of a brain haemorrhage soon after. As if this weren’t tragic enough, she was only 31. But her talent is evident, the heart of this album that pulses in your ears as if she were singing only for you. Traces of what has gone before enhanced by a unparalleled dynamism. Encompassing then and now to create something strikingly contemporary – it deserves every accolade going.